New York

The New York Film Festival

Public Art Fund | Lincoln Center

The New York Film Festival roster was again awash with continental sexualité; saucy tidbits ripe for American connoisseurial delectation. A glance at the menu tells it all: films about nuns in a convent or a young girl discovering their repressedly churning libidos are certainly not dissimilar to last year’s young girl discovering her newly spiraling libido. Not only is it problematic to speak of a national cinema, but it would be a mistake to categorize French films, or any other, on the basis of a few arty export flicks chosen by a coterie of festival directors and critics. But certain observations can be made, I hope, without resorting to rigid categorizations.

A number of recent American films have thankfully left predictable and stereotypical sex romps behind, and entered a terrain in which relationships, both romantic and platonic, are defined by and share the spotlight with the culture that contains them. In other words, human connections exist, not in some steamy never-never land but rather in an America constructed of sex, money, race, labor, leisure, wealth, poverty and rock ’n’ roll, to name a few influences. Stories unfold within an anthropologically excavated tableau in which characters enact a sexuality determined by shopping habits, musical tastes, and ways of living and dying.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, and David Byrne’s True Stories all carry the markings of this socially studied breed of American film. Peggy Sue Got Married is a nostalgically manipulative launch into the wild and crazy lapses of time travel, substituting Kathleen Turner’s throaty world-weary woman for Back to the Future’s cute-boy teen voyager. Although the film is more than a bit soggy, its savvy sex-role reversals and Smithsonianlike cultural exhibitionism make it a simple gooey pleasure.

Down By Law, gorgeous, slight, and determinately antieffervescent, is another of Jim Jarmusch’s homages to the notion of “the white negro?” Y’know, all those everything-is-everything honky-guy attempts to appropriate what they perceive to be the apex of cool. The jail scene featuring Tom Waites in a hair net and John Lune desperately pursing his lips in order to make them appear fuller says it all.

True Stories is as stunningly flat as the landscape it glides through. Casting aside the dramatic crescendos of vertical narrative, David Byrne’s amble through Virgil, Texas, is the apotheosis of the travel film, a touristic glance at the “other” as it shops, works, and celebrates its way through its heartland habitat. Replete with Stetson and string tie, Byrne is the quintessential tour guide, a gosh-darn combo of Mr. Rogers and Marlin Perkins. An apt stance, since his fictive burg of Virgil is indeed pictured as a conflation of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Zoo Parade?”

True Stories is, among other things, a bunch of smashing music videos strung together by a draggy narrative that functions like a plodding necklace of conjunctions. Ironically, Byrne’s squeaky-clean accomplishment has the feel of a porno film, during which the audience survives the interminably arrested plot in anticipation of the next penetration shot. So if the music segments are glimpses into the national interior, then Ed Lachman’s horizontal glance at tract houses and shopping malls supplies us with a distanced view of the national corpus. We watch parades chock-full of lawn mower brigades, Shriners in miniature cars, and low riders. We see auctioneers sing and yodel and assembly lines percolate with giggles and gossip. And we again watch television via a skillful appropriation of some very familiar video moments. True Stories is an obvious extension of the last decade of smashingly distanced Talking Heads production. To see it as a kind of aw-shucks, darn-gorgeous salute to wacky Americana would be a goof. No matter how much Byrne wants to believe that he has ferreted out a smidgen of compassion in that cold smart noggin of his, it remains amusingly clear that he is a failure at genteel humanism. His Virgil exudes a kind of madhouse allure in which he, the attendant, gently shows the inmates to their cells. That the title suggests that Byrne seriously believes in any notion of “truth,” let alone any brand of “story,” is a cute joke. How come all the brightest boys want to be the man who fell to earth?

Barbara Kruger